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Oppostition Coalition in Serbia Seeks to Maintain Momentum

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post
BELGRADE, Yugoslavia

Nikola Jurisic is a protester in search of a cause. He's not particular: Whatever the grievance against the Serbian government, it's a good bet Jurisic will show up and shout.

"We've got to continue these protests," said the 25-year-old history student, a regular at the demonstrations that have drawn huge crowds into the streets every day for nearly three months, shaking the government of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. "There's too much energy here for it to go to waste."

Yet the opposition coalition Together, which has mobilized Jurisic and tens of thousands of other protesters for 86 straight days, now faces a quandary born of its own success. Having forced Milosevic to accede to its main demand - restoring opposition victories in local elections that were annulled by the government in November - the Together coalition must now figure out a way to maintain pressure on the regime in the absence of another easily unifying goal.

"They got what they wished for, but if they lose the momentum they're not sure they can regain it later," said Predrag Simic, director of the Institute of International Politics and Economics in Belgrade. "But now they lack a clear and coherent goal (to justify) staying in the streets."

So far, the opposition says it will keep up the daily protests at least until all its winning candidates are notified officially that their seats on city councils are assured. On Tuesday the Serbian parliament, fulfilling a pledge by Milosevic, reinstated the opposition victories in Belgrade and 13 other cities. Official notification of the winning candidates could take another few days.

After that, says the opposition, the protests may be suspended - at least for a few days and following an enormous victory celebration in Belgrade's main square. But leaders of the Together coalition, having flexed their muscles successfully on the streets once, are threatening openly to do it again, and soon.

Indeed, the protests against the government have taken on a life of their own, and some opposition members concede they may not be able to halt them entirely even if they want to.

"There are strikes by teachers and taxi drivers that are not originated by the (opposition) coalition," said Slobodan Vuksanovic, an opposition lawmaker. "This whole year will be full of demonstrations. People understand they can achieve something only through pressure on the streets."

The government maintains that the protests have cost Yugoslavia - of which Serbia is the main remaining chunk - $500 million in delayed contracts with foreign companies and other lost business opportunities since November. Foreign diplomats in Belgrade acknowledge that the damage done by the crisis to the country's economy-already a shambles after more than five years of war and international sanctions-has been devastating. The diplomats also point out that the crisis might have been avoided entirely had Milosevic recognized the opposition victories in the first place.

"There's not a single reason for (the protests) to continue," said Serbian parliamentary speaker Dragan Tomic, a hard-line ally of Milosevic. "They are not only a matter of disturbing citizens but a kind of violence. These shouts and cries must frighten any peaceful citizens."

Together coalition members say there will be no shortage of grievances to draw people onto the streets in the future. They promise to press for free media, for more equitable distribution of federal funds for the local governments now controlled by the opposition, and for a fair drawing of voting districts in this fall's Serbian parliamentary and presidential elections.

But none of those issues has the immediate, crowd-pleasing appeal of restoring stolen city council seats, opposition leaders acknowledge. In the end, they concede, people will take to the streets simply because of declining living standards in a country that, until Milosevic helped launch a disastrous war, considered itself extremely prosperous by the standards of Eastern Europe.

Vuksanovic, the opposition lawmaker, acknowledged that the protests already have become more broadly anti-government than pro-opposition. But that, he suggested, was not a problem for the opposition but rather an opportunity:

"Put all these problems together, and President Milosevic will be on the top of the list as a symbol of poverty, a symbol of four years of war, a symbol of a diminished position in the world, of economic sanctions, of unemployment, of the black market - a symbol of all our problems."